Sofia, for better or worse, is a city that does not reveal itself easily. It is not written about with rich, romantic words in the same way that cities such as Belgrade or Istanbul are, for instance. The city does not have a postcard image. Even within Bulgaria, Sofia is disregarded as merely a large city that pales in comparison to the seaside communities. It is a city that escapes any particular gaze. As a consequence, Sofia is critically ignored and constantly underrated.
It might have taken me two trips but what was revealed to me is a city rich in artistic talent, friendly in demeanor, and home to shockingly good food. The city did not undergo a major transformation between my visits. Instead, this time around I had Sofia journalist and author Svetoslav Todorov take care of me. Svetoslav is the editor of the cultural section of the business paper Capital. He was the perfect man to explain the logic of the city and what makes it such a unique place. Step into any bar with him, you’ll be sure to meet every individual doing something special in the city. Tremendously well connected, he is your man when you’re looking to make sense of Bulgaria’s capital.
Acknowledging that this is a tough city to get to know, I thought it would be a good idea to ask Sveto a couple questions to give you a hand in understanding the city. Although Sofia is not a city that reveals itself easily, what is true is that the more you scratch the surface, the more you fall in love with it. Make sure to follow Sveto on Instagram and his author page on Facebook.
What do you need to eat in this city?
The rumour that you have access to healthier food without this costing you a fortune is true. Also, if you like spicier things, you’re at the right end of the Balkans. I can’t really recommend one thing but I’ve seen foreigners talking about the cheese here in a very Gollum-”my precious”-style, so there’s that.
What’s one thing you miss about Sofia when away from the city?
It’s both a curse and a blessing to have a city with a cultural and a social life based almost exclusively in the centre. But the short distances are definitely something I miss when in a much bigger city. I don’t think you can say often “I’ll just see what’s on in these five galleries and then meet a friend, then have some beer at that park and then we’ll head to that gig” without any time lost to public transport claustrophobia.
What’s one thing that makes you want to leave Sofia?
Lack of a stable professional future and/or eventual inability to support a family if I’m ever at that stage of life. Bulgaria goes lower and lower in the World Press Freedom Index (currently 111 in the world) so for various reasons there is a black cloud that’s always hanging around. While I strongly believe that you have to stand tall during your country’s hard times and contribute, you can’t really do that if you can’t practice your profession or can’t transform your skills adequately into something else. If sometime in the future you’re reading news about Bulgaria going in a full-Viktor Orban mode and you’re at a bookstore in Berlin and someone is playing obscure Patrick Wolf and Zola Jesus ballads in the background – you can say “hi”, it will probably be me on the counter. Pick a Georgi Gospodinov or Nikolai Grozni novel on the way to it.
When is the best party of the year?
Oh, depends on what you’re looking for. While I love the small, busy bars during the winter there is this specific charm about how late, slow afternoons blend into the night when in the summer it’s all about the parklife. Unfortunately, two of our best clubs closed last year, so what I find exciting now usually happens in bars for like a hundred people.
How do you piss people off when talking about Sofia?
Most people love to hate their own place so no need to add any more fuel to that. But “Oh, I had a much better time in Plovdiv” always works.
Which street has the best graffiti?
Not sure about “the best”, but “Shishman” street and the associated streets around it are a good introduction to all things Sofia, including street art – there are also some works which are there for a day or two. One of my favourite ones is a pasted collage of a former TV host with a very questionable reputation who in early 2017 was in the run for the director position of the national TV – he’s pictured “hugging” Pelé and there’s a sign “welcome to the past”. There are different variations of it around the centre and it always brings a smile.
If you picked one song to summarize Sofia then which one would it be?
Every now and then I play “Violence”, the new Editors record. There is a track there called ‘Darkness at the Door‘ which summarizes very well this feeling of belonging yet committing to that with a bit of an anxiety.
Where should you go for a Tinder date?
Never used that. But even locals are sometimes not aware of the best places so don’t underestimate your research skills.
What Instagram account should someone follow in Sofia?
For better or for worse, Sofia demands some investigating – a curious newcomer might know more about the city in a month than a local who stays home. There isn’t really one account that truly captures everything that happens or presents you with the exciting stuff in one glance and within a two or three clicks. But the Instagram accounts of Vij Magazine , Boyscoust Magazine , and Programata might give you some good starting points.
Where should you drink alone? Where should you drink to meet new people?
Drinking is quite a social thing here – if someone drinks alone at a bar, you’ll look like a Charles Bukowski character and that hasn’t been sexy in decades. On the downside, that means you’re always a bit locked in your circle of friends so it’s sometimes a bit of a struggle if you want to meet people you have never met before – but if you’re intrigued about someone, give it a few days, you’ll meet her or him again. In terms of spots to hang out, Atelieto, Kanaal, and Crystal garden have all turned into almost second homes for me. If you’re about how places feel rather than how they look, you’ll find your way pretty easily in Sofia.